Lillian O’Moore - The grand lady of Irish dance and and the Derry Feis

As she sat in the armchair of her living room being interviewed about her involvement with Feis Doire Colmcille, Lillian O’Moore began almost immediately to focus on the technicalities of the art she has dedicated her life to.

By Eamon Sweeney
Friday, 15th April 2022, 12:53 pm

As she spoke, her eyes brightened, her shoulders assumed the straight posture of a dancer and her feet began to display many of the steps that are intrinsic to the tradition. You might be thinking that there’s nothing unusual about a dancing teacher going over Irish dancing steps. However, in this case it is very unusual because on May 23rd this year Lillian will be 96-years-old.

“I started dancing at the age of seven with Nellie Sweeney who, to me, was the mother of Irish dancing in Derry. Then I left and went to Mr Brendan De Glinn when he started teaching. The big event of the year was Derry Feis. It was a week of music, song and dance. Everyone thought it was a great week. The household chores were left behind and the parents bought season tickets and took their children to the feis. And, Derry being such a city of talent, there were children there from the age of six and not only were they able to compete in dancing but verse speaking and singing and the mothers just loved every moment of it. During the week they’d take the children to the Rainbow Café and the Leprechaun and down to Fiorentini’s for ice cream,” Lillian said.

Lillian’s childhood pursuits at Derry Feis were not, however, solely confined to dancing. Through her attendance at St Eugene’s Primary School she still vividly recalls being part of an action song.

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Lillian O’Moore was one of the first candidates for the TCRG (dancing teachers examinations) in 1943 alongside the late Anna McCoy of Belfast.

“I was about eight and our teacher was Miss Dora Logue. A girl in the class was able to play the violin so they decided they’d let her take part in the action song and we danced. But unfortunately she went off tune with the piano and didn’t know whether to dance with the violin or the piano. There were four schools in for the competition and I’ll always remember that we got fourth. We were very disappointed,” Lillian laughed.

Another memory Lillian recalled was regularly meeting the late Bishop Edward Daly who was a staunch supporter of Feis Doire Colmcille.

She continued: “One of the first people I always met going into the feis was always the then Fr Daly. He just loved Derry Feis. He loved every bit of it. He said he even loved the dancing even though as he put it there was a friendly rivalry between the dancing teachers. I said ‘you’re right there father’. He loved the singing too. He just loved that feis.

“Now don’t get me wrong, the Millennium Forum is a beautiful venue, a brilliant venue, but it hasn’t got the friendliness of the Guildhall. In the Guildhall I met pupils of mine who went to live in America and England, but who came back every year for Easter week just to be in the Guildhall. We lost use of the Guildhall during the Bloody Sunday Inquiry, but we used to go there and the stewards would open the doors and there’d be a rush out – the dancers didn’t want to hear the singing and the singers didn’t want to watch the dancers. Then you’d go out into the corridor and Sonny Fleming made the teas as that time. Even though the dancing teachers might have been arguing inside, when they went outside they had a cup of tea together. Then the Colmcille Ladies Choir took over making the tea and they were lovely. Things like that were simple but lovely.

A rare and precious image of Lillian O’Moore pictured with one of her past pupils, the late Marie Barrett who herself became a renowned teacher of many champion dancers.

“I had great interest in the singing too. I used to love Cissie Parlour and Esther McLucas, Carita Kerr, Pat Henderson, Maureen Hegarty and Afric McGinley. The women singers all went up in their evening wear, now they go up in their jeans but they are still brilliant singers.

“I was on the feis committee too and there were some lovely ladies on it like Sybil Sharkey who was a great friend of mine and gave me great advice and now her daughter Ursula who is the registrar.”

Recalling her own days as a competitive dancer, Lillian added: “At that time it was the rhythm that adjudicators were looking for and the carriage of a dancer. Don’t get me wrong, it’s just maybe more modern now and it’s beautiful but it has changed.

“I wasn’t a champion dancer. I was always placed. But when I started teaching I thought, do I like this? And I did. I never thought when I was teaching that I would produce world champions. Some of my pupils got the world championship. Actually, Murianna Clarke was the first dancer to bring a world title to Derry. John Gallagher won it twice, Voureen McLaughlin, Kathleen McConnell won the Ulster, All Ireland and world all in the one year and Stacey Lynch and Leanne Curran won the world championship too. I also never thought that Mr Thomas Farrelly who was president of An Coimisiun would select me and take me to New Zealand with him where I examined people going on to be teaching. That was a great honour. Then I went to Australia with the late Mr De Glinn. Those are great memories. It pleases me to think because I wasn’t a very confident dancing teacher so I never thought all that success would come to me. When I was 90 I received tributes from all over the world and I thought ‘could this actually be happening to me?’

Lillian pictured in 1992 when An Coimisiun held a Feile Dea Mheasa (celebration) of her achievements in Irish dancing. Also pictured is Seamus O’Shea, then president of An Coimisiun Le Rinci Gaelacha.

“The first hall I taught in was at West End Terrace behind my mother’s shop. The shop is still there but it’s a picture framing shop now. She built that little hut at the back of for me to teach in. Sometimes the children would buy sweets in the shop with the money that was meant for my class. My husband used to say that I should have been a millionaire, but I said they bought brandy balls with my dancing money. That’s were George Kilkie who won the All Ireland for me five times started dancing.

“I can’t mention them all, but I had many great families who were part of the school, but I’d be afraid to leave anyone out. Some of my pupils also became teachers. Marie Barrett started with me when she was six and became a teacher and adjudicator. She was a lovely person. She was a cousin of the late Fidelma Mullan who was also a brilliant dancer. Frankie Roddy became an adjudicator as did Voureen McLaughlin. My daughter Michelle O’Donnell-Spencer now teaches dancing in Wales and I also had great friends like Dorette Gillen, Ted Kavangh and Paddy Dillon through dancing. I also remember people like Giles Doherty and James MacCafferty at Derry Feis. They were all very special people.

“Teams were also a very important part of. Some of my teams won The Gates of Derry and I danced in one of Mr De Glinn’s Gates of Derry teams. The teams were lovely and Mary McLaughlin had some lovely teams. I loved teaching the figure dancing, I really did.”

Dedication to the art also meant that travelling to teach dancing wasn’t an issue. Many, in fact would shy away from the miles covered by Lillian O’Moore.

“My late husband Brendan used to say when we were out, ‘did you teach half of Derry?’ I taught in Fanad. I went there on a bus because I failed my driving test. I left Derry at 9 o’clock and didn’t get Fanad until 12 because they stopped at shops everywhere along the way to deliver papers. I could have been in America quicker. I also taught in Milford and Rathmullan, in Dungannon, Feeny, Dungiven and all the time carrying a big tape recorder. Now the children have iPads and the music on their phones. That’s a real change, but it’s mostly for the best because Irish dance is now famous all over the world.”

With her interview at and end Lillian Moore rose and with her feet perfectly turned out gave an impromptu display of ‘1-2-3s’ that would put many younger dancers to shame. She paused to add: “Derry was and still is the city of talent and we should be very proud. I am sure other places are very envious of us. The feis has given a lot to Derry in terms of culture. Derry Feis was very prestigious, and to me it was the highlight of the year. There was a great friendliness and warm atmosphere about it.”